It’s been a year since Beth Weldon became mayor of the City and Borough of Juneau, and in that time there’s been a lot going on in the capital city.
Weldon came in with a promise to tackle affordable child care in the city. It didn’t help then, when just a few months into her tenure, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced massive cuts to the state budget, much of which funded early childhood education programs like Head Start.
Dunleavy eventually reversed course on those cuts and funded $6.8 million for HeadStart and $1.2 million for pre-K programs. But state funding across the board was significantly cut back, cutting over $34 million from the state budget.
But Weldon didn’t seem daunted by what’s happening at the state level as she sat down with the Empire on a (slightly) rainy morning this week.
“I’ve enjoyed meeting lots of new people,” she said, sitting in the Mayor’s office at City Hall. “I try to address citizens’ concerns as quickly as I can.”
That isn’t always easy, she said.
“That’s been one of the toughest things about this job, the amount of email we get is amazing. You go out of town for any reason, business or pleasure, and you’re just inundated.”
Child care task force
On the campaign trail, one of the concerns she heard repeatedly about was child care.
“Not just parents but businesses and other entities saying that (lack of child care) was stifling growth,” she said.
When she came into office, she formed a child care task force of city staff and Assembly members, with member Loren Jones at the head.
The task force, which is still ongoing, came to the city with a number of recommendations, some of which could be accomplished quickly, others are more long term. In the short term, the Assembly raised the funding levels for a number of programs related to child care.
“We started with like, $80,000 for HEARTS and we bumped that up to $180,000 to help with child care providers,” she said.
Hiring Educators and Retaining Teaching Staff (HEARTS) is a program with the Southeast Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children (Seaaeyc) which funds training and education for child care providers.
In addition to the HEARTS program, the Assembly upped the funding for KinderReady, the Juneau School District’s pre-K program. Funding for that program was raised from $140,000 to $300,000, Weldon said.
There are some more recommendations that are coming, according to Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove, one of the city staff members tasked with examining child care options. Those will be presented to the Assembly on Oct. 28.
“We’re taking a handful of draft recommendations to the Assembly, some of them are pretty simple and some a little more complex,” Cosgrove said. “We need a little bit more public process, and queue them up for discussion in the budget.”
‘Everybody’s concerned about the budget’
The Assembly is still examining the city’s budget. Right now the city’s budget is not on a sustainable path and the Finance Committee has been meeting more frequently to examine revenues and expenditures and prioritize city services.
“Everybody’s concerned about the budget,” Weldon said. “We’d like to get budget back to a sustainable level where our expenses and our revenue equal each other.”
The Assembly is still waiting to see what the city’s finances will look like for the next year but at a recent Finance Committee meeting, Finance Department Director Jeff Rodgers told the committee that decisions going forward would be “challenging.”
Weldon said that if cuts needed to be made, top of the list of priority programs are life and safety, “anything that is essential for keeping people safe,” she said.
Beyond that was education, she said. “Everybody knows that this town values education.”
The mayor said she was also announcing a tourism task force to examine the industry’s effects on the city.
“It all has to do with infrastructure,” she said. “If we add a few more tourists, how are we going to deal with those people?”
A few more tourists are certainly on the horizon as studies have shown the number of cruise ship passengers arriving in Juneau has been steadily rising since 2010 when 900,000 passengers came through. According to a study by the McDowell there were 1.15 million in 2018. Add to that the fact that Norwegian Cruise Lines just paid $20 million for a plot of land on the downtown waterfront with the intention of building another dock.
“I think we have to wait and see what they’re willing to do,” Weldon said when asked about Norwegian’s plans. Representatives from the company met with city officials earlier this month to discuss possible investments.
In a meeting with reporters, Howard Sherman, executive vice president of onboard revenue and destination services for Norwegian Cruise Lines said that his company wanted to work with local partners.
“We can come in with capital, and make those capital dreams come true. We’re more than investors,” Sherman said at the meeting.
But Weldon acknowledges the challenges that adding another cruise ship dock would create.
“Will I say that there should never be a cruise ship dock there? No,” she said. “But the city has to look at if we put another cruise ship there, do we really want five cruise ships docked?”
Yet there were things the company could help with that would mitigate those impacts.
“Everybody’s interested in shore power,” Weldon said. “Could they help with the Sheep Creek run of the river? That would supply enough energy in the summer so that all the docks could be electrified.”
Alaska Electric Power & Light have explored the possibility of a small scale hydro electric project in the Sheep Creek Basin. Alec Mesdag, AEL&P vice president, said that if that project were completed it could potentially help the company to power an additional cruise ship.
The mayor also touched on the proposed annexation of Admiralty Island, which she voted for as an Assembly member in January 2018. It was a “tough subject,” she said. “Juneau is mainly looking at taxes, and can we get taxes. Angoon is in a position where they can’t form a borough and so that area would never be taxed.”
She said she wanted to work with the city of Angoon and make that more of a friendly relationship, “but right now it’s in the hands of the local boundary commission.”
Weldon seemed undaunted by the stresses the first year as mayor had placed on her. She said it had been difficult balancing her responsibilities as mayor with those of Glacier Auto Parts, the business she owns with her husband.
On a personal level, “I would still like to be as approachable as I can be and address citizens’ smaller issues,” she said, which is where all those emails come in.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.